In the fall of 1919, a year after the guns of the Great War fell silent, a senior British officer dined with the former German general Erich Ludendorff. The conversation turned to Germany’s recent defeat, which Ludendorff blamed on the home front. “Do you mean, general,” asked the British officer, “that you were stabbed in the back?” Ludendorff’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Stabbed in the back? Yes, that’s it, exactly, we were stabbed in the back.” And so was born theDolchstoßlegende, or the stab-in-the-back myth. German conservatives claimed that the kaiser’s army hadn’t been defeated on the battlefield in 1918, but was instead betrayed by domestic anti-war groups.
In the United States, the stab-in-the-back has become a staple right-wing explanation for lost wars. During the McCarthy era, conservatives blamed the Harry Truman administration for “losing” China to communism during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and then failing to secure victory in Korea. After the Vietnam War ended in defeat for the United States in 1975, Richard Nixonimpugned liberals, the media, Congress, and anti-war demonstrators for failing to back Saigon. Even the movie hero Rambo got in on the act: “Sir, do we get to win this time?”
In the wake of the Iraq War, the stab-in-the-back myth has resurfaced. This time, conservatives place the blame squarely on President Obama. As the story goes, George W. Bush’s “surge” of American troops in Iraq achieved a victory, before Obama fecklessly withdrew U.S. soldiers, transforming success into failure and triggering the rise of ISIS.
Senator Lindsey Graham said, “When it comes to blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.” Jeb Bush said the president retreated from Iraq in “blind haste” and concluded: “Rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger, and the costs have been grievous.” The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer claimed that the Iraq War had been “won,” only for the victory to be “tossed away” by the president.
Like many myths, the stab-in-the-back combines an ounce of truth with a pound of…